A majority of professional conservationists believe it is time to consider shifting efforts away from some of the world's most famous species, such as the panda, to concentrate on others which have a greater chance of success.
A survey of nearly 600 scientists involved in wildlife protection found that more than half agree with the idea of species "triage", where conservation efforts are concentrated on certain animals and plants that can be saved at the expense of species that are too difficult or costly to preserve in the wild.
The highly controversial idea has been discussed for several years among conservationists with little consensus, but it seems that there is now a growing appetite for taking it more seriously, given the scale of the extinction crisis facing the natural world in the coming century, as a result of loss of natural habitats, a growing human population and climate change.
The overwhelming majority of the 583 scientists who took part in the survey believe a serious loss of biological diversity is "likely, very likely or virtually certain". In that context, some 60 per cent of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the idea of triage – a medical term where limited resources are concentrated only on those individuals who can survive with some help.
"They argue it is time to move beyond outright rejection of triage. Results from my survey suggest that a shift in attitude may have already happened or that it always existed," said Dr Murray Rudd, an environmental economist at York University, who carried out the study published in the journal Conservation Biology. "The challenge in conservation is to know what's beyond help and what's not. In some cases, we don't know what the costs of species conservation are going to be," he added.
Many experts have rejected the idea of wildlife triage on the grounds that it is impossible – and perhaps immoral – to make judgements about one species at the expense of another, given the complexity of the ecological interactions in the natural world. However, others are starting to question the value of spending millions of pounds on one celebrated species, such as the panda, or a big predator such as the tiger, where loss of its habitat is almost inevitable.
"When considering conservation values and priorities the scientists said understanding interactions between people and nature was a priority for maintaining ecosystems. However, they largely rejected cultural or spiritual reasons as motivations for biological biodiversity. They also rejected human 'usefulness', suggesting many do not hold utilitarian views of ecosystem services," Dr Rudd said.
The Canadian government, for example, has poured millions of dollars into efforts to save the Atlantic salmon. However, there are questions about whether the money could have been better spent on other conservation projects, Dr Rudd said.
But one message is clear from the survey. Almost all of the professional conservationists interviewed said that species extinction is happening. "Given the perceived severity of loss of biological diversity, scientists may be willing to discuss potentially contentious conservation options," he said.
Dying out: Species losing fight for survival
In 1900, there were up to 100,000 tigers in India alone. Now, estimates of their global population range from just 3,062 to 5,066. India still has the most – about 1,700 – but with the country expected to overtake China as the most populous nation, pressure on dwindling tiger populations is intense. The false belief of Chinese herbalists that tiger products can cure a variety of ills means that poaching is still endemic and is organised by highly skilled criminal gangs.
Estimates of the polar bear population range from 20,000 to 25,000. But with Arctic sea ice melting at its current rate that number is expected to plummet by up to 30 per cent within 40 years. The bears rely on sea ice to reach their preferred meal – seals. As sea ice melts, bears starve and can come in contact with humans more, scavenging farther for food.
Decades of overfishing has led to a plunge in Atlantic salmon populations, nowhere more spectacularly than off the east coast of Canada. Since the closure of Newfoundland's commercial fisheries in the early 1990s, Canada has invested millions of dollars in trying to bring stocks back up to pre-industrial levels, but the initiatives have had little success.
As an global symbol of endangered animals, it is no coincidence that the World Wildlife Fund chose the giant panda as its logo when it was formed. There are now just 2,500 mature pandas in the wild. China has spent millions on conservation, which has slowed the species' decline, but it has had only tentative success with captive breeding programmes.